THE Countess of Wessex cried yesterday, as she heard a Scots meningitis victim tell how she coped with losing her limbs to the disease.
The countess blinked her eyes and wiped away tears as she listened intently to Olivia Giles’s speech.
Miss Giles, 38, a lawyer from Edinburgh, had her arms amputated below the elbow and her legs below the knee, after contracting meningococcal septicaemia 18 months ago.
The countess, who is six months pregnant, is patron of the Meningitis Trust and gave her first major speech yesterday.
At the launch of the Meningitis Trust’s Support for Life Appeal, in London, Miss Giles spoke of the difficulties she had faced and the "brutal" after-effects of the disease.
She said: "I want you to realise how savagely meningitis rips through people’s lives, tearing them apart forever."
The countess, who was wearing a large, pearl-coloured beaded necklace, long black coat and trousers and a silky cream top, sat to the side of Miss Giles, looking up at her as she spoke.
Miss Giles herself appeared close to tears at the end of her speech. She spent some time talking to the countess after the event. The pair had met previously in connection with the trust.
The countess’s own address - which was the first major speech of her royal duties and which she gave before Miss Giles - referred to the "terrible debilitating after-effects" of the illness.
Speaking slowly, clearly and confidently, she stumbled briefly just once on the text, which she had written herself. She described Miss Giles as a "brave and beautiful woman who lives day in, day out with the reality of life after meningitis".
Smiling at what appeared to be a reference to her own pregnancy, she said: "How many of us here today find the thought of meningitis more than a little frightening, whether or not we are parents or parents-to-be?"
Her tearful reaction is bound to bring comparisons with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who was often in touch with her emotions and who cried in public on a number of occasions.
Miss Giles said after the event that she was pleased her speech had made an impact.
"I’m quite taken aback actually, but I suppose it makes me feel effective, and that reinforces my belief that I can actually reach people in a more powerful way than your average person, because what’s happened to me is so dramatic."
She said that, when giving talks to schools, her appearance immediately captures the attention of the pupils: "You can hear a pin drop."
Miss Giles contracted a virulent form of meningitis in February 2002 when she was a partner in one of Scotland’s top law firms - MacLay Murray and Spens.
She slipped into a coma and four weeks later lay unconscious in hospital. As the infection progressed, doctors were left with no option but to amputate her hands and feet to save her life.
Miss Giles has said that her doctor initially dismissed her condition as a "virus" and told her to take aspirin.
She is understood to have considered legal action against the GP, who failed to spot the warning signs of the potentially fatal condition when called to her home.
The trust is attempting to raise 4 million over the next two years to fund support services for people whose lives have been devastated by meningitis.